Life with bees

Local man’s apiary skills go way back

Richard Bordin tells a great story of how he got into the bee business.

Richard Bordin tells a great story of how he got into the bee business.

Photo by Robert Speer

Richard Bordin, who’s now in his early 70s, started keeping bees when he was in high school in Durham. He’s a friendly, talkative man who likes to tell stories, and how he got into the bee business is one of his favorites.

It began, he said during a recent interview at Chico’s Thursday Night Market, when he needed to come up with a project for an ag class. His father, who farmed 60 acres of almonds, recommended he do something with bees.

So young Richard went to his Ukrainian mother and asked for some money to buy some bees. She reached under her blouse and pulled out a $20 bill from her bra. With that he bought a hive and a bag of bees. But the hive failed—“The queen died or something,” he said—so he went back to his mom. This time she pulled out $40, with which Richard started two hives. They both thrived.

That was the beginning of Bordin Bees, which for many years has been one of the largest beekeeping and orchard pollination operations in the Sacramento Valley. In a farming area that depends on bees to pollinate its orchard trees, Bordin and his millions of bees have had an outsized role.

By the time Bordin graduated high school, in 1959, he had 30 hives, and five years later he had 300. By 1980, Bordin Bees had 7,000 hives and “trucks you wouldn’t believe,” Bordin said.

The thing about bees is, you’ve got to move them around to where the flowers are. That’s easy enough when the Sacramento Valley’s thousands of acres of orchards are in spring bloom, but when the blooms are over, the bees still need nectar. That’s when mountain wildflowers, clover and other such flowering plants become important sources.

Bordin is partnered in Bordin Bees with his younger brother, Victor. They have about 5,000 hives and 15 acres of vegetable farm. The bees are spread all around Northern California, especially in the Sierra Nevada, and as far away as Utah, Nevada and Bakersfield. The brothers are often on the road, hauling their hives, as are several of their 10 full-time employees.

They sell most of their honey to the Sioux Honey Association, a Midwest cooperative that markets Sue Bee honey, but they sell about 10 percent of it at local farmers’ markets, along with their produce. Richard Bordin is proud that he was one of the original half-dozen or so vendors when the Chico farmers’ market began 35 years ago.

Beekeeping is tough work, Bordin says, and it’s gotten harder in recent years because of the havoc being wreaked on hives by colony collapse disorder and varroa mites. Every year, he says, he and his brother lose and must replenish 30 percent of their bees.

It’s also hard on the body. Bordin has a bad hip and a bad shoulder resulting from work injuries, walks with great difficulty, and uses a wheelchair to get around. “I’ve worked myself to death,” he said, but he doesn’t seem quite ready to give up the ghost. He rises at 4 a.m. every day and meets his crew at 6 o’clock to start work.

He speaks fondly of his employees, as if they’re like family and it’s his responsibility to care for them and treat them fairly. And he has his next week all planned out—what he’s going to do and where he’s going to do it each day—and he seems genuinely excited at the prospect.

It’s been 60 years since his mother reached into her bra and drew out those $20 bills. Who knew it would lead to a long life with bees?